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Obama's Arctic

Irene QuaileJanuary 30, 2015

Conservationists welcomed President Obama's plans to halt oil exploration in a key Arctic reserve, but worry some Arctic areas will still be opened. The mixed message sends the wrong signal in a critical year.

Shell rig aground in Alaska
Image: AP

With the US set to take over the chair of the Arctic Council for the next two years, this week's announcements on oil and gas plans by the Obama administration were eagerly awaited.

US President Barack Obama has focused special attention on the Arctic, a region rich in fossil fuel resources, but also of key ecological significance. The polar region is under severe pressure from climate change, warming more than twice as fast as the global average.

National Wildlife Refuge protected

Conservationists rejoiced at last weekend's announcement that more than 12 million acres of Alaska's key Arctic National Wildlife Refuge (ANWR) would be set aside as wilderness. The ANWR holds considerable reserves of petroleum but is also a critical habitat for many Arctic species. The move stops - at least for the moment - any prospect of oil exploration in an area which has long been a subject of dispute between environment campaigners and those who say finding oil is more important.

Polar bears.
The ANWR is a favorite with the iconic polar bearImage: imago/Mint Images

"Alaska's National Wildlife Refuge is an incredible place - pristine, undisturbed. It supports caribou and polar bears, all manner of marine life, countless species of birds and fish, and for centuries, it supported many Alaska Native communities. But it's very fragile," said the US president in a video released by the White House.

Jamie Williams, president of the Wilderness Society, said in a statement, "Some places are simply too special to drill, and we are thrilled that a federal agency has acknowledged that the refuge merits wilderness protection."

Only the US Congress can actually create a wilderness area, but once the federal government has designated a place for that status, it receives the highest level of protection until Congress acts. Obama is thus using his executive power to introduce a measure his opponents would otherwise block.

Oil still on the agenda

Two days later, the administration released a long-term plan for opening coastal waters to oil and gas exploration, including areas in the Arctic off Alaska. The plan excludes some important ecological and subsistence areas from potential drilling, but it still includes some Arctic areas, including parts of the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas.

Even with climate change, the Arctic ocean will have ice in winter.
The Arctic ocean will have ice in winter regardless of climate changeImage: Imago/All Canada Photos

Margaret Williams, managing director of WWF US Arctic Programs, criticized the new proposal, saying it "keeps drilling for oil in the US Arctic in the picture." With the US poised to take the helm of the Arctic Council, she called for protecting biodiversity to be a top priority for all Arctic nations.

The new program will not affect existing leases held by Royal Dutch Shell in the Chukchi Sea. The company's efforts have been the subject of controversy, not least since the grounding of the drill rig Kulluk.

Still, Williams saw some room for optimism.

"The decision will protect some key parts of the Arctic Ocean off Alaska. Protecting the biological hotspot of Hanna Shoal from risky offshore drilling was a highlight of the decision," she told DW. The Hanna Shoal is a key site for walruses and other animals.

Alaska walruses
Walruses are already suffering from climate changeImage: picture-alliance/AP Photo/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Oil: valuable asset or liability?

While Alaskan state politicians and the oil industry promised to fight planned restrictions, saying they were harmful to the economy, others say the search for new oil in the Arctic makes no sense at a time when oil prices are at a record low and the US is producing plentiful supplies of shale gas.

Bloomberg financial news group this week quoted financial experts as saying the world's biggest oil producers did not have "bulletproof business models," citing financial cutbacks by BP, Chevron and Shell.

"The price collapse hobbles a segment of the industry that had already been struggling with years of soaring construction costs, project delays, missed output targets and depressed returns from refining crude into fuels," analyst Anish Kapadia told Bloomberg.

Climate paradox

The Arctic is being hit at least twice as fast by climate change as the global average. Its ecosystem is already under huge pressure. The northern region is also of key importance to global weather patterns. And burning more oil would exacerbate the situation even further.

Greenpeace Symbol: Liberty in Arctic Ocean
Greenpeace: melting Arctic means rising seasImage: Christian Auslund/Greenpeace

"We would like to think that we can shift our energy paradigm to clean energy so that we don't have to take every last bit of oil out of the earth, especially out of the oceans," said Jackie Savitz of the Oceana Campaign croup.

Studies by her group and by WWF indicate that developing renewable energy technologies such as offshore wind could create more jobs than hanging on to fossil fuel technologies.

WWF's Williams also sees a need for a different focus in a year when the US has pledged to help create an effective new world climate agreement in Paris in November.

"Rather than opening more of the Arctic and other US coastal waters to drilling for dirty energy, the US needs to ramp up its transition to a clean energy future," she says. "As the administration works to rally international leaders behind a bold climate pact in 2015, decisions to tap new fossil fuel reserves off our own coasts send mixed signals about US climate leadership abroad."

Black threat, white Arctic

In addition to the climate paradox of the hunt for new fossil fuels, environmental groups share another lingering concern: Oil spills.

Proposals to open up large areas of coastal waters for the first time, including some parts of the Atlantic, have aroused concerns about potential pollution. But the Arctic is of particular concern because of its remoteness, harsh weather conditions and seasonal ice cover, which is not likely to disappear soon, even with rapid climate change:

"Encouraging further oil exploration in this harsh, unpredictable environment at a time when oil companies have no way of cleaning up spills threatens the health of our oceans and local communities they support," Williams says. "When the Deepwater Horizon spilled 210 million gallons of crude oil five years ago, local wildlife, communities and economies were decimated. We cannot allow that to happen in the Arctic or anywhere else."

White House senior counselor John Podesta echoed these concerns while explaining the newly announced ban on oil exploration in the ANWR.

"Unfortunately, accidents and spills can still happen, and the environmental impacts can sometimes be felt for many years."

Anti-oil campaigners say this logic also applies to the other areas now designated by the administration.

For the Arctic in particular, limiting exploration to remote offshore areas, they say, does not protect the region against the risk of environmental disaster.